In preparation for writing this review, I read back over my review of Naked. I do this a lot: read things I’ve written. I joke with my spouse that my blog is my favorite blog. Everything in it is relevant to my life, and I relate to the author so well. It’s a joke, but it’s true.
So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I found myself nodding in agreement as I read through my review of Naked. I thought about just copying and pasting that review here, with a few modifications, but that seemed like cheating. And I didn’t feel exactly the same about Dress Your Family as I did about Naked.
Unlike with Naked, there wasn’t a particular section of this book that I could point to and say, “The second half…this was the funniest part.” The pieces and moments that touched me and/or made me laugh were peppered throughout the book. As usual, the things I loved about the book were also the things that left me feeling self-conscious that I loved them. The mouse swimming in the bucket, for one. And as usual when I read Sedaris, I’m left with this feeling that I’ve done something horribly wrong or maybe said something mortally embarrassing, I just can’t seem to figure out what. Maybe I’m just inside Sedaris’s head too much. He expresses a similar guilt/anxiety in his piece, “Chicken in the Henhouse,” and perhaps that just kind of rubbed off on me.
One thing that really struck me about that particular essay was how it revealed a heterosexual privilege I hadn’t considered before. He writes about the mixed feelings he has helping a ten-year-old boy carry coffee and cocoa up to his parents in their hotel room. In the elevator, another man chats with the boy and Sedaris is thinking about the ease with which he does this and why he, David, doesn’t feel that same ease.
“The man in the elevator had not thought twice about asking Michael personal questions or about laying a hand on the back of his head,” he writes. “Because he was neither a priest nor a homosexual, he hadn’t felt the need to watch himself, worrying that every word or gesture might be misinterpreted.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege (racial, sexual, economic) lately, and it was interesting—and eye-opening—to me to see an example of heterosexual privilege. (For examples of what privilege looks like, see “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh).
Another thing I loved about the essays is the way Sedaris evokes strong emotion through the ridiculous. The essays that feature his brother Paul are the best examples of this. Paul—at least as Sedaris describes him; I’ve never met the man—is over the top in everything he does, and always seems to be acting unashamedly in a manner that is completely socially unacceptable. But Sedaris manages to convey how deeply his brother feels, not despite Paul’s foul mouth and rough edges but almost because of them. This was especially evident in the essay, “Baby Einstein,” when Sedaris describes Paul in the weeks following the birth of his daughter. “This was the new, gentler Paul: same vocabulary, but the tone was sweeter and seasoned with a sense of wonder.” I’m left with the sense that Paul is very dear to Sedaris—as are all of his siblings—even though they’re very different from one another.
But my favorite thing about this book isn’t something I can directly credit to Sedaris. I read Dress Your Family at the same time I was reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and I was delighted to find a passage in each that expressed a very similar sentiment. The one from Dress Your Family is in the essay, “Us and Them.” The passages are kind of long, and I’m not even sure anyone who hasn’t been staying up until 1 and 2am reading three books at once just for the fun of it would see the same connection, so I won’t quote them all in this review. Maybe I’ll devote a blog post about them sometime. For now, suffice it to say that I loved seeing those similarities, even if they exist only in my sleep-deprived brain.
I heard Sedaris read several of the essays in this book in Raleigh a decade ago, and I’ve decided that much of what’s delightful about his essays is the way that Sedaris performs them. For example, when I heard him read “Six to Eight Black Men” in Raleigh, I laughed until I could hardly breathe, but it just didn’t have the same effect when I read it to myself. This isn’t a criticism, but rather an observation about the divide between writing and performing. It’s like reading a play versus watching it on stage. Sedaris’s essays just have more punch for me when he’s the one delivering them. Or perhaps it’s just that some of them are best performed and others are best read quietly to oneself. They’re enjoyable either way, but, for me at least, they’re gut-splittingly funny live and just smile-and-chuckle amusing when I read them to myself. Maybe I need to work on my reading voice.